Friday, March 28, 2014

The Long-Lost Chestnut Trees of University Avenue

It's hard to believe, but this is a photo of University Avenue. Today, this stretch of road is "Hospital Row," lined with concrete and glass. But this is what it looked like in 1896. That's Queen Park off in the distance. The Legislative Building had only recently been opened, but the land — previously part of the University of Toronto — had been leased by the Province all the way back in the 1850s.

They turned it into a public park. It was opened by the Prince of Wales, the guy would who later become King Edward VII (the same King Eddie our hotel is named after, and who now sits astride his horse as a statue in the park). About 30 years before that, 500 horse chestnut trees were planted along University Avenue and a grassy promenade was built down the centre of the street. It became one of Toronto's grandest avenues. Even Charles Dickens was impressed when he came to town.

So by the time this photo was taken, the chestnut trees of University Avenue had already been there for something like 70 years. But soon, the street would change. Toronto General Hospital moved to this strip in 1913. And over the next six decades, it was joined by many more, including Princess Margaret, Mount Sinai and Sick Kids. The trees have been replaced with concrete, pavement and glass. Only a thin sliver of green survives along the island that still cuts the avenue in two.

As Shawn Micallef points out in Stroll, University's grand avenue-ish-ness echoes the royal promenades on the other side of the Atlantic, like the Long Walk outside Windsor Castle. That's one of the places I'm planning on leaving dreams as part of the Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour. One of the most interesting figures from our city's past — Colonel FitzGibbon — spent the final forgotten years of his life at Windsor Castle, having fought the Americans in the War of 1812 (he's the guy Laura Secord warned) and William Lyon Mackenzie in the Rebellion of 1837 (he took the threat seriously when no one else would, organizing the city's defenses despite the Lieutenant Governor's orders to do nothing). FitzGibbon is still there, in fact, buried on the castle grounds at St. George's Chapel along with many of the most famous kings and queens from England's past.

I've got a new dream for him all ready to go. You can help me leave copies of it at Windsor Castle, St. George's Chapel and along the Long Walk by contributing to my Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign — and you can get your own copy too.

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That statue of King Edward VII used to stand in another park on the other side of the world. I told the story of how it came to Toronto from India here. You can learn more about FitzGibbon and the Rebellion of 1837 in my post here. Mary Pickford grew up in a house on the east side of University Avenue just a few years before this photo was taken. I told her story here. I also posted another old photo of the tree-lined street from 1907 here.

blogTO has a bunch more old University Avenue photos in a post by Derek Flack here. That's where I first found a copy of this photo. Canadian Tree Tours has a bit more info about the horse chestnut trees here. And you can find the relevant excerpt from Shawn Micallef's Stroll on Google Books here. There's a short history of University Avenue and Queen's Park here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

UK Tour Preview: The Birthplace of Doctor Who

This is the BBC Television Centre. It first opened on Wood Lane in London all the way back in 1960. It was one of the very first buildings in the world built specifically to make television. And while the BBC stopped using it last year, it's been designated as a protected heritage site by the British government. The architecture is iconic, with a circular "doughnut" and a round courtyard — they say the frustrated architect went to a pub, drew a question mark on an envelope, and then realized the question mark was the perfect shape. What happened inside, however, is even more remarkable than the building itself. Many of the greatest shows in the history of television were shot right here: Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Top of the Pops, Monty Python's Flying Circus...

But for Torontonians, this building is particularly remarkable because it's where our own Sydney Newman first came up with the idea for Doctor Who. He spent most of the 1960s working right here as the Head of Drama for the BBC — famous for the radical new Canadian ideas he brought with him from his time at the NFB and the CBC. When the network was looking for a new show to fill a troublesome timeslot on Saturday afternoon, Newman suggested a science-fiction show about a time-travelling old man. Then, he put together a groundbreaking young team — including the BBC's first female producer and first Indian-born director — to make the show a reality. Within weeks of the airing of the first episode, the show was a hit. Fifty years later, it's still quite literally the most-loved drama on British television.

I told the full story of Newman's career and the birth of Doctor Who in a recent post; he'll soon be getting his own dream as part of the Toronto Dreams Project. I'm planning on leaving it at the BBC Television Centre as well as other Doctor Who-related sites in London and Wales (including the former location of Lime Grove, the studio where the first episode was shot). You can help me get there by contributing to the Indiegogo campaign in support of the Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour (or by sharing it on Facebook or Twitter).

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Photo via the BBC.


Monday, March 24, 2014

A Drink With The Toronto Star

Well, as the headline suggests, a few weeks back, I had a drink with Eric Veillette from the Toronto Star. It was for his "A Drink With" column, which is pretty neat: he's recently featured everyone from Councillor Josh Matlow to TTC CEO Andy Byford to Spacing co-founder Matthew Blackett. And as the man behind the Silent Toronto blog — all about our city's silent film history — he's got a particular interest in Toronto's past. So he's had lots of drinks with heritage and history folks, too, like Karen L. Black, (manager of Toronto's Museum Services), Black Creek Pioneer Village's Wendy Rowney, David Wencer (who writes some of Torontoist's Historicist columns, and is also the archivist for Sick Kids) and Colin Brunton (the director of The Last Pogo Jumps Again, the Toronto punk doc I wrote about a few weeks ago).

We headed to the County General on Quest West West for some whisky. You can check it out online here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Ten Questions for Rob Ford (More Important Than The Crack One)

More than ten months have passed since the news of Rob Ford's crack video first broke. And while most of the world is focused on the Mayor's drug use, his drunken stupors and his bizarre viral videos, the police investigation continues. New court documents released this week are a reminder that while Ford finally did admit the crack video is real, he's still refusing to answer many of the most important questions related to the scandal. (He's even willing to violently plow through reporters in order to avoid having to answer them.) Substance abuse problems are just the tip of the Rob Ford iceberg. News reports and police documents have tied the Mayor's scandal to alleged kidnapping, home invasion, drug dealing, beatings, death threats, a killing, blackmail and extortion.

Here are ten of the most disturbing questions Toronto is still looking for answers to (many of them raised, of course, by allegations that have yet to be been proven in court):

1. Did you order Sandro Lisi to commit extortion?

So, you know, Sandro Lisi? Your former driver? The guy with a violent criminal past? The one who was recently convicted of making death threats? The one you hang out with in high school parking lots and stage elaborate package-drops with? Well, he's currently not only charged with drug trafficking and possession, but also with extortion. Police allege that in the first few days after the Star and Gawker reported the existence of the crack video, Lisi used "threats or violence or menaces" to get the video back. And according to the phone records, he started calling the guys with the video right after a phone call from you, Mr. Mayor, at the exact same time the crack story was breaking.

Police documents also allege that the man trying to sell the video was kidnapped two weeks later by members of the Dixon City Bloods: "They talked to Siad about 'the video.' Siad was crying, saying he destroyed the video and his family is in trouble. Abdi told Siad that if he saw him in Dixon he would kill him."

Did you order Sandro Lisi to commit extortion? Were you aware of, or involved with, the kidnapping and the death threat?

 
2. Did you order the attack at 15 Windsor?

Five days after the crack story was first published, someone broke into 15 Windsor, the alleged crack house where the video is thought to have been shot. The Toronto Star reported that "Fabio [Basso, the owner of the house], his girlfriend, and Fabio's mother were assaulted by an unknown attacker brandishing an expandable baton who broke into their home." They also say that Sandro Lisi had been seen there earlier that day. And the day before. According to a Star source, he confronted Basso on the front porch: "'Where are the guys who made the video, Fab,' Lisi said, according to a witness who was present. 'You know where they are.'"

Did you order that attack? Were you involved in the planning of it? Do you know anything about it?


3. Did you order a jailhouse beating?

You are currently being sued by your sister's ex-common-in-law partner, Scott MacIntyre. He says that back in 2012 you ordered one of your former football players to attack him while he was in jail. According to the Toronto Sun, the lawsuit alleges that the attack "left him with a fractured left leg, facial cuts and dental damage. Four or more of his teeth were sheared at the gum line". MacIntyre claims that you ordered the attack in retaliation for his threats to go public with your drug use and criminal connections.

He also claims that he wasn't transported to the hospital until 36 hours after the attack. And that he didn't receive dental care until almost two months later.

Did you order the jailhouse beating of Scott MacIntyre? Did you use connections inside the jail to pull it off — and to keep him from receiving timely treatment for his injuries?


4. Who did you threaten to kill?

In one of your many videos, Mr. Mayor, you are seen threatening to kill someone. "I'll fucking kill that guy," you shout. "I'm telling you, it's first-degree murder... No holds barred, brother. He dies or I die, brother... I'll rip his fucking throat out. I'll poke his eyes out... I'll make sure that motherfucker's dead..."

After the video came out, you admitted that it was "embarrassing" and that you were "extremely, extremely inebriated". But you refused to answer the most important questions.

Like, for instance, who were you threatening to kill?


5. What do you know about the killing of Anthony Smith?

You famously took a photo with alleged gang members outside 15 Windsor. Two of those men — Anthony Smith and Muhammad Khattak — were later shot outside a nightclub on King Street. Smith was killed in the shooting.

Police documents suggest they have found no link between the crack video and the shooting, but there have been many questions raised about the suspicious timing of Smith's death. And you've failed to answer them fully. Back on May 30, the Edmonton Sun wrote, "There is now widespread belief Smith was killed for his phone, which may have contained the video." The CBC reported that "some friends" of Smith believed "he might have had the video stored on his cellphone." And your (now former) chief of staff, Mark Towhey, later revealed that he heard a similar rumour in the days immediately following the first Gawker and Toronto Star reports about the video: "There were a lot of phone calls coming into the office from people... One of our staff received some information from someone he trusted that we didn't know... that [the video] might have been the motive for a murder."

What do you know about the killing of Anthony Smith? How did you meet him? How well did you know him? Did you believe that he knew about — or even had a copy of — the crack video?


6. How did you get your cellphone back?

Last April — a few weeks after Smith was killed and a few weeks before the crack story broke — your cellphone went missing. The National Post reports that you told your staff you lost it while you were cleaning up a park, that you must have left it on the hood of your car and driven off. But police wire taps tell a very different story. They suggest you were doing drugs at 15 Windsor that night. And that your phone was taken by alleged members of the Dixon City Bloods.

Sandro Lisi seems to have tracked it down. According to phone records released in the ITO (court documents submitted by police) last November, he called your cellphone 19 times over the course of 45 minutes in the wee hours of the morning. Later that day, he called Liban Siyad — one of the alleged gang members — and accused him of stealing it. According to the wire taps, he said you were "freaking out" and that you would "put heat on" the Dixon Road apartment complex if they didn't return the phone.

The wire taps suggest that Siyad and his friend ("The Juice Man") agreed to return the phone. They also said they had a photo of you smoking a pipe and had you "in a lot of fucked up situations." According to those wire taps, Lisi agreed to give them a quantity of marijuana in exchange for your phone.

Police also say that Siyad is one of the men who may have been targeted by Lisi's extortion over the crack video a few weeks later.

Did you order Lisi to get your cellphone back? Did you instruct him to exchange drugs for it? Were you willing to use your position as the Mayor of Toronto to "put heat on" a neighbourhood in order to keep your drug use and criminal connections a secret? And, while we're at it, were you ever blackmailed over the cellphone? Or the photo they mentioned? Or the crack video?


7. Have you used your power as Mayor in an attempt to obtain confidential information?

The police say that back in August, you realized someone was following you. They think you and your friends spotted their surveillance vehicle while you were hanging out in your old high school parking lot. Five days later, they say a member of your staff phoned the police to tell them you thought you were being followed. They gave the cops a license plate number that was just one number different from the plate of their surveillance vehicle. The police say they offered to speak with you directly, but you never followed up.

Instead, they say that your new chief of staff, Earl Provost, gave them a call; that he asked them for the registration information of the vehicle. That's confidential information — and the police told him so. According to the ITO, Provost said you were angry with him for not being able to "give him what he wants."

The police claim those actions "clearly indicate that Mayor FORD is utilizing his position and the powers of the Office of the Mayor, to obtain information not available to regular citizens... I believe that Mayor FORD was trying to get the registration information for the vehicle that he and LISI observed on August 18th, 2013."

Is that true, Mr. Mayor? Were you trying to abuse the powers of your office?


8. Have you been paying the bills at 15 Windsor? Or helping the owners get special treatment from the City?

In the ITO, police describe a notebook. They believe it belonged to you or one of your staffers, and say that it contained entries relating to the alleged crack house at 15 Windsor along with the water department and outstanding bills. The police document suggests, "One possible explanation for these entries could be that the Mayor is dealing with house maintenance and bill payment at 15 Windsor Rd."

According to a report by the Toronto Star, a city official told them that in January 2013, a member of your staff "called the city's water department on behalf of resident Fabio Basso regarding a sewage issue at 15 Windsor Rd."

Were you paying bills for a crack house? Did you use your power as the Mayor of Toronto to get them special, expedited treatment for their sewage issues?


9. Did you order a hacker to illegally delete the crack video?

According to a VICE source, at the same time the police say Sandro Lisi was busy with his extortion, one of your current staffers (who was working for your brother, Councillor Doug Ford, at the time, and who has recently stepped aside for cancer treatment) tried to hired a hacker to delete the video off a website. The source claims the hacker was able to access the account, but couldn't delete it.

Do you know anything about that? Did you or your brother order someone to illegally hack into someone's account and delete the video?


10. What was in those mysterious packages?

In the ITO released last November, police surveillance shows you going to elaborate lengths to hide the fact that you were picking up packages from Sandro Lisi. In the ITO released this week, they say that your communications with him are "indicative to that of drug trafficking". The Globe and Mail has also detailed reports of your family's history with drug-dealing, which claim your friend and former staffer David Price and your brother Doug Ford sold large quantities of hash together during the 1980s.

So what was in those packages? Drugs? Nothing else? And if so, do you simply purchase drugs from Lisi? Or is there more to your relationship?

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Photo by the West Annex News (cropped, via the Wikimedia Commons)

The post also appears on The Little Red Umbrella.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

High Park In Winter

It's hard to believe, but we're only a few weeks away from the days when the Sakura cherry blossoms will be blooming again in High Park. So, I recently took the chance to take a walk through the park while it's all still full of winter. I had my eye out for Snowy Owls and Bald Eagles — both of which have been spotted there this year — and while I wasn't lucky enough to see any, I did get to see plenty of pretty. (Even if it was so cold on the banks of Grenadier Pond that my iPhone kept shutting down.) I've uploaded a bunch of my photos, along with a few archival pics, to a gallery on Facebook, which you can check out here (whether you have a Facebook account or not):

FULL GALLERY

And, as always, you can follow me on Instagram at @todreamsproject.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

UK Tour Preview: How England Helped Save The Group Of Seven

The Group of Seven's A.Y. Jackson painted this painting right at the very end of the First World War. He'd spent the last few years on the front lines in Europe: first as a soldier crawling through the trenches in Flanders, then as an official war artist with the Canadian War Records Office (a department created by Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian newspaper baron turned British Cabinet Minister). But when the war finally ended, Jackson's job wasn't quite over: he was sent to Halifax to capture the scenes of Canadian soldiers returning home. Arthur Lismer — one of the two British-born members of the Group of Seven — was already there. He was working for the War Records Office, too. Together, during the spring of 1919, they painted the warships as they came home. That's when Jackson made the sketches for this painting, Entrance To Halifax Harbour, which he probably finished back home at the Studio Building in Rosedale.

In those early days, the Group of Seven weren't famous yet (in fact, they weren't even called the Group of Seven yet). And Canadian critics hated them. They were too modern, too experimental. They were dismissed as "The Hot Mush School." "A horrible bunch of junk." "The figments of a drunkard’s dream." "Daubing by immature children." More than 30 years after Van Gogh painted Starry Night, Canada still wasn't ready for Impressionism.

But in England, it was a whole different story. After the end of the war, an exhibition was held in London. Some of the Canadian paintings created for the War Records Office were put on display at the majestic Burlington House, a couple of blocks from Piccadilly Circus. Jackson wasn't the only member of the Group of Seven with work hanging on the walls — Fred Varley (the other member of the Group who was raised in England) had also been painting on the Western Front. But there were more pieces by Jackson than by anyone else. And the show was a big success. Thousands of people came to see the exhibit on the first day alone — including the Prime Minster of Canada, Robert Borden. Jackson's paintings for the War Records Office would eventually end up in some of the most important collections in Canada, including the National Gallery, the War Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Entrance To Halifax Harbour wasn't part of that exhibit. But just a few years later, the painting finally got its chance. In 1924, the English government put on a massive display of industry, engineering and artwork from all over the British Empire. The British Empire Exhibition was a VERY BIG deal: the biggest and most popular exhibition that had ever been held anywhere. Back in Canada, the job of picking the Canadian art to submit sparked a major battle between the old guard of conventional, established artists and the modernist up-and-comers like the Group of Seven. In the end, the modernists won the right to be included. And Entrance To Halifax Harbour was sent to London.

The reviews by Canadian critics were harsh. The Toronto Daily Star compared Jackson's work to "a spilt can of paint." But the English critics loved it. The Morning Post called the Group of Seven "the foundation of what may become one of the greatest schools of landscape painting." Only one piece of Canadian art was sold during the British Empire Exhibition — and it was Jackson's. Entrance To Halifax Harbour was bought by the Tate Gallery. It's still part of their collection today.

The show in London helped to establish the Group of Seven's reputation back home in Canada. Now that the British took them seriously, Canadian collectors started taking them seriously, too. The Group even used the reviews from the Empire Exhibition to promote their upcoming shows: they printed posters with the angry Canadian reviews side by side with the glowing British ones.

Even today, the Group of Seven are lauded by some British critics. A major exhibition of their work was mounted by a London gallery just a couple of years ago. According to the gallery's director, "[The Group of Seven] produced some of the most vibrant and beautiful landscapes of the twentieth century." He calls Tom Thomson "Canada's very own Van Gogh."

In a couple of months, I plan on heading to London myself. I'll be there to leave dreams from the Toronto Dreams Project at Toronto-related historical sites across the city. They'll include my dream for A.Y. Jackson, "The Longest Earthquake in the History of the World," which I launched as part of the AGO's First Thursday back in December. I'll visit Burlington House, where the War Records exhibition was held, along with other Jackson-related spots.

You can help me get there by contributing to my Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign (or by sharing it on Facebook or Twitter).

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You can read the full story of A.Y. Jackson and the First World War in one of my previous posts here.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Toronto's Icy Waterfront in the Winter of 1911

Well, it's been one a hell of a crazy winter in Toronto this year. And while the rising temperatures make it  almost sort of kind of start to maybe feel like spring will actually happen at some point, they say there's more snow on the way first. I suppose we might be able to take at least a little bit of solace in the fact that Torontonians have been dealing with ice and snow for as long as there has been a Toronto. Here, for instance, is a frigid photograph from the Toronto Archives taken on our waterfront during the winter of 1911.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Toronto Dreams Project Goes To The UK

It's been about three years since I started the Toronto Dreams Project. Since then, I've been leaving my fictional dreams about the history of the city in the public places where that history happened, so people can find the dreams and learn more about our city’s past. But Toronto’s history is also tied to places all over the world and I’d like to leave dreams in some of those places too. So I’m happy to announce that I’m taking the Toronto Dreams Project on the road to visit Toronto-related historical sites in the United Kingdom.

I need your help in order to make it possible. I've launched an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign with a goal of raising $4000. If I do, I’ll be able to take the Dreams Project to visit sites all over the UK. I’ll leave multiple copies of more than a dozen different dreams in more than a dozen different cities, towns and villages in England and Scotland and Wales. I’ll visit big cities like London, Cardiff and Edinburgh and lesser-known spots like Dunkeswell, Budleigh Salterton and Clackmannanshire. If I fall short of raising the full amount, I’ll still try to leave as many dreams as possible in as any many places as possible.

On top of that, I’ll be using the tour as a chance to share the stories of how these places are connected to the history of Toronto. During the trip, you’ll be able to follow along as I share the stories here on my blog and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. So, for example, you’ll get to hear about the hotel in London where Sir John A. Macdonald caught on fire during the negotiations over Confederation, about the psychiatric hospital where one of Toronto’s greatest artists had electroshock therapy, and about a chapel in the middle of the English countryside, which is officially part of the province of Ontario.

The campaign comes with some incentives, too. As a thank you to everyone who donates at least $20, I’ll send you your very own copy of one of the dreams that I leave in the UK. If you donate at least $50, I’ll send you 5. And if you donate $100, I’ll be so grateful that I’ll send you your own copy of every single one of the dreams that I leave on the UK tour.

Even if you can't contribute financially, you can support the Toronto Dreams Project's Indiegogo campaign by sharing the link on your Facebook page, or on Twitter or Instagram, or even just by telling your friends. I can't tell you how excited I am about this and every little bit helps. Thanks so mcuh!

You can contribute to the campaign on Indiegogo here.


Monday, March 3, 2014

How Toronto Helped Break Up The Beatles

At first, no one believed it was really happening. It sounded too good to be true. The Toronto Rock 'N' Rock Revival Show was going to be a massive, thirteen-hour spectacle in tribute to old-timey jukebox rock & roll. The line-up was going to feature some of the greatest rock stars that had ever lived: a mix, mostly, of old greats from the 1950s and up-and-coming young stars. Little Richard. Chuck Berry. Alice Cooper. Jerry Lee Lewis. Bo Diddley. Chicago. The Doors. Gene Vincent. Junior Walker & The All-Stars. But tickets for the festival hadn't been selling well at all. People in 1969 weren't really all that interested in rock & roll from the '50s. They were into psychedelic rock now; Woodstock had happened less than a month earlier. So it seemed pretty convenient when the rumour started: that John Lennon was going to show up with Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton and The Plastic Ono Band in tow.

Bullllllllllshit. No way they got one of The Beatles. John Lennon hadn't performed at a rock show in front of a big crowd in more than three years — not since The Beatles quit touring. When the rumour started, radio stations refused to believe it. And so did everyone else.

But then, in Detroit, a radio DJ got a hold of a recording of a phone conversation between the organizers of the festival and Yoko Ono's assistant: they were booking the plane tickets from London to Toronto. The DJ played the tape on the air and suddenly, at the very last minute, it seemed as if Lennon might actually be coming. People rushed to buy tickets. In just a few hours on the afternoon of the show, it went from a financial disaster to a sell out.

Still, the ticket holders didn't know the whole truth: even the organizers weren't completely sure Lennon would actually come. The Beatle woke up that morning at home in England, nearly six thousand kilometers away. He'd only known about the show for a couple of days, when he got a phone call from Toronto asking if he and Yoko would be willing to emcee the show. John would get to introduce Yoko to all the rock & roll heroes of his childhood and they would be able to use the show as a chance to promote peace. In fact, it would also become known as the Toronto Peace Festival. This was just a few months after they'd recorded "Give Peace a Chance" in a Montreal hotel room and just a few months before they launched their famous "War Is Over" billboard campaign. Lennon agreed. In fact, he didn't just promise to come, he promised to play.

It really was unbelievable. The Beatles were still the biggest band on Earth — just a month earlier, John, Paul, George and Ringo had finished recording Abbey Road, which would turn out to be one of the greatest albums of all-time. But the end was near. They weren't getting along like they used to: they bitched at each other in the studio, fought over the business of Apple Records, grumbled about the time Ono was spending in the studio. Lennon was looking for a new creative outlet. And the Toronto show would help give him one.

There was, however, a big problem: Lennon didn't have another band. He and Yoko had recorded together under the name "The Plastic Ono Band", but that wasn't a real band at all. It's just what they called anybody who happened to be playing with them. "YOU are the Plastic Ono Band" was their official slogan. That meant Lennon only had a couple of days to put together an entire new band from scratch.

Of course, John Lennon had an easier time finding musicians than most people would. He convinced Eric Clapton (who had played on The Beatles' White Album) to come play guitar. Klaus Voorman (who had been friends with The Beatles since their early Hamburg days and played bass in Manfred Mann) said he would come too. Drummer Alan White (who would later play in Yes) was the final piece: he agreed as soon as he realized it wasn't a prank call — that really was John Lennon on the other end of the phone.

But getting a few musicians together was one thing — actually getting on the plane and going through with his first gig in three years was another. They say Lennon was a nervous wreck. On the day of the show, John and Yoko didn't show up for the band's flight from Heathrow. The plane left for Toronto without The Plastic Ono Band on board.

That was a MAJOR problem for the festival organizers. And not just because of all the angry ticket holders they'd have on their hands if Lennon didn't show up. The promoters were much more worried about the angry biker gang they'd have on their hands.

You see, over the course of 1960s, a biker gang called The Vagabonds had become a major force in the Toronto rock scene, doing their whole violence and drugs and horrifying misogyny and crime and riding motorcycles thing. They'd managed to sort of, um, "convince" the guys putting the show together that The Vagabonds should be allowed to escort John and Yoko from Pearson Airport (on the outskirts of the city) to Varsity Stadium (downtown, at Bloor & St. George). The Vagabonds arrived in force: 80 bikers, all of them excited to be the honour guard for one of the Beatles. They were not going to be happy if it fell through.

In the end, they say Eric Clapton saved the day. He got on the phone with Lennon and told him in no uncertain terms that if Eric Clapton had to be at the airport lugging around all his gear, so did John and Yoko. Lennon was finally convinced to go through with it. The band was going to be a few hours late, but the bikers were okay with that: they'd go pick up The Doors first and then make a second run. Meanwhile, The Plastic Ono Band finally got a chance to have their first ever rehearsal: on the plane, without amps or drums, struggling to hear themselves over the roar of the engines as they flew across the Atlantic on the way to their very first gig.

The Plastic Ono Band's first rehearsal

 
That wasn't the show's only last minute hiccup, either. Just a few days earlier, the promoters had managed to land another 1960s icon: D.A. Pennebaker. He was the greatest rock 'n' roll documentary filmmaker of, well, ever: the guy who had filmed Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back and made the wildly successful documentary about the Monterey Pop Festival. But there were some last minute money issues in Toronto. Pennebaker arrived at the stadium on the day of the show and started setting up his equipment — even watched as the first acts took to the stage — but he still didn't have permission to film anything. He watched helplessly as Bo Diddley — who was supposed to be one of the centrepieces of the film — began his set.

Finally, the permission came through. As Diddley came out for an encore, the cameras started rolling. So that's how Pennebaker's movie — Sweet Toronto — starts: with the sound of Bo Diddley's electric guitar playing the iconic chords from his massive, self-titled, 1955 hit. When you finally get a good look at Diddley on stage in the film, he's in a suit, guitar in hand, dancing under the hot sun with his backing band. He calls out the refrain and thousands upon thousands of people roar it back to him: "Heyyyyyyy Bo Diddley!" It's enough to give you chills. And the build up to that moment in the film is even more extraordinary: as those first chords repeat themselves over and over again, the footage cuts away to the airport, where John and Yoko and the rest of The Plastic Ono Band are arriving. They find a limousine waiting for them — along with the surprise of 80 enthusiastic bikers. As afternoon turns to dusk, The Vagabonds escort them down the 401 and into the heart of the city.

When they got to Varsity Stadium, John and Yoko headed into the dressing room; they had a few hours to wait before their turn on stage. Meanwhile, the other acts on the bill — egged on by the cameras of one of the most famous documentarians of all-time — were giving some of the most amazing performances of their entire careers.

Robert Christgau, "Dean of American Rock Critics", was there that day. And since he's one of the greatest rock writers ever, I'll defer to him:

Chuck Berry at Varsity Stadium
"The sun was fading... by the time Chuck Berry appeared. Berry is the best all-around showman in rock and roll. He is probably in his forties by now, nobody really knows, and duckwalking across the stage takes more out of him than it once did. But the cameras turned him on. Pennebaker was still contorting himself and shooting wild from the knees and belly, but Berry matched him twist for turn, and did three duckwalks, and mugged shamelessly for the cameras. In what several experienced Berry-watchers adjudged one of his finest shows ever, he stayed on for over an hour, finishing at twilight."

In fact, as the day wore on, it was clear the show was beginning to be a pretty big deal for all of the older performers. Just a decade earlier, they had been some of the biggest — and first — rock stars the world had ever seen. But now, at the end of the '60s, none of them was as popular as they had once been. Straight-up, hard-rocking rhythm and blues had been replaced by psychedelic jams. Rockers had been replaced by hippies. Now that Lennon and Pennebaker had turned the Toronto Peace Festival into something more than just a revival show, those old jukebox stars were taking full advantage. The crowd danced and laughed and sang along. It makes for remarkable footage in Sweet Toronto: those shaggy, long-haired kids of the late '60s, with their big sleeves and big hats, their vests and bare chests, smoking pot and blowing bubbles to old-timey rock & roll, shaking their hips, doing the twist, singing and clapping along to the songs that kids their age had been listening to more than a decade ago, their faces glowing. All smiles.

After darkness descended, Little Richard came out with his bouffant hair do and bright, tight, shiny, silverwhite pants, his shirt covered in mirrors. During "Good Golly Miss Molly," he leaped on top of the speakers, dancing like a disco ball, took his shoes and his necklaces off, and then hurled them all into the crowd. During "Jenny, Jenny" he stripped to the waist, bouncing, sweaty and frantic, twirling his shirt above his head before launching it out into the mass of the audience. "Long Tall Sally" was a blistering, bare-chested frenzy. He played "Tutti Frutti" twice in a row. "Rip It Up" three times. Christgau was blown away: "Little Richard, resplendent in mirrors and pompadour and with makeup covering not only his face but his neck, put on his usual orgy of self-adoration. He was magnificent." The Star called him "absolutely electrifying." The Montreal Gazette called him "rock and roll personified... You name it, he sang it — and it was all just as good live in a stadium filled with long hair and pot smoke as it was in a finished basement with white socks and smuggled beer." As Richard tore through his version of "Keep A-Knockin'," hippies made out on the grass. A Canadian flag waved above the crowd. By the end of the set, he had picked people out of the audience to dance on stage with him. "Ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at the true rock & roll!" he shouted. "The 1956 rock & roll!"

Some critics point to that day as the moment the 1950s became cool again. After appearing on stage in Toronto, the old jukebox stars, some of whom were having trouble getting gigs, started being asked to tour again. Soon, Little Richard was back on the charts; he was featured on albums by young bands like Canned Heat and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Bo Diddley was opening for groups like The Clash as late as 1979. Jerry Lee Lewis found himself back on the charts, too. And so did Chuck Berry. In fact, he would get his first ever #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972. Today, 45 years after the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival Show, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are all still touring.

And while the festival was reliving the 1950s, it was also heralding the very beginning of the 1970s.

Alice Cooper played that night too. He wasn't a big name at that point, but the Toronto Peace Festival would prove to be his most famous performance ever. His band appeared in makeup, long hair, leather and ripped stockings, playing their strange, theatrical prog-rock. At the climax of the set, they hurled themselves around the stage, tearing apart the gear, as their instruments screeched and moaned. Cooper kicked a football out into the audience, smashed a watermelon with a hammer and then heaved it, too, out into the crowd. The band broke open a few pillows, filling the air with feathers, and used big tanks of CO2 to blow them out over the audience. And then, well...

Nobody seems to be entirely sure where the chicken came from. Cooper claims that an audience member threw it on stage. Other people say the band brought it with them. Either way, you can see what happened next in Pennebaker's footage of the show: Cooper picked up a live chicken from the stage and launched it out into the crowd. "I figured: it's a bird," he explained in an interview decades later. "I'm from Detroit, I don't know, a chicken's got wings, it'll fly — and I threw it back in the audience figuring it would just fly away. Well, it went into the audience and the audience tore it to pieces."

Alice Cooper's "Chicken Incident"
By the time the newspapers hit stands the next day, some headlines were claiming that Cooper bit the head off the chicken himself and drank its blood. In the morning, he'd get a call from Frank Zappa asking him if it was true. When Cooper explained what had happened, Zappa told him, "Well, whatever you do, don't tell anyone you didn't do it." It is still, to this day, one of the most infamous stories in all of rock & roll history. Alice Cooper's "Chicken Incident" is hailed by many critics as the birth of shock rock.

Meanwhile, John and Yoko and The Plastic Ono Band had been backstage during all of this, waiting for their turn to perform. The tension was eating away at Lennon. It had been so long since he played a real show — and his first time back was going to be in front of some of his biggest musical heroes. "I threw up for hours before I went on," he admitted. (Eric Clapton later suggested that may have had something to do with all the coke Lennon was snorting.)

Finally, at midnight, it was time. The emcee for the night was Kim Fowley — a super-famous radio DJ from Los Angeles — who had an idea he thought might help to calm the Beatle's nerves. He had the stadium lights lowered, so that it was completely dark. And then he asked the crowd to light their matches. As Lennon, all long hair and shaggy beard in a white suit, stepped out onto the stage, he was greeted by a sea of flickering light. Thousands of tiny flames glowed all around the stadium. "It was fantastic," he remembered later. "The lights were just going down. This was the first time I ever heard about this — I'd never seen it anywhere else — I think it was the first time it happened."

He was still nervous, though. "We're just going to do numbers we know," he told the crowd, "you know, because we've never played together before." And then The Plastic Ono Band launched into "Blue Suede Shoes". It was big rock classics like that at the beginning of the set: the songs the band members had heard their heroes sing back when they were young — some of those heroes, the same ones who were now watching from backstage. They were the kind of songs that made Lennon want to start The Beatles in the first place. The kind of songs they started out playing in their earliest days, at the smoke-filled Cavern in Liverpool and in the rough nightclubs of Hamburg in the early 1960s. Back when it was all still fun; before everything got complicated.

It was an emotional moment. Watching from backstage, Gene Vincent had tears streaming down his cheeks. He'd first met Lennon and The Beatles back in those Hamburg days, when the Fab Four were still just starting out and Vincent was already a star thanks to "Be-Bop-A-Lula". The first record Paul McCartney ever bought was a Gene Vincent record. And as The Plastic Ono Band played those old hits, The Beatles road manger noticed the rock & roller crying. "It's marvelous," Vincent told him. "It's fantastic, man." After the show, Lennon says Vincent came up to him. "John, remember Hamburg, remember all that scene?"

John Lennon at the Toronto Peace Festival
But The Plastic Ono Band's set was as much about the future as it was about the past. The experimentation and collaboration which would define Lennon's solo career were on full display. Near the end of "Blue Suede Shoes", Yoko came out, climbed into a white bag and sat down on the stage next to John. At the end of "Money (That's What I Want)", she climbed out and handed him the lyrics. When they started into "Yer Blues", Yoko began to wail into a microphone. "It sounded as if she was crying, like a child, in fear," the Globe and Mail wrote. After a stirring, sing-along rendition of "Give Peace A Chance" — the first big public performance of Lennon's first solo song — the entire second half of the set was centered around Ono's experimental sound-making. "Yoko's going to do her thing all over you," Lennon announced. Then she began to sing the bizarre noises of "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mommy's Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)".

Some didn't respond well to Ono's avant-garde howling. One fan told Mojo Magazine, "People were polite. They were bewildered, but everybody knew she was an artist, she'd taken photographs of bums and things like that. We figured whatever she was doing, eventually it would end. But it didn't fuckin end." Ronnie Hawkins was there that night, too; he remembered people being a little less polite. "As hip as everyone there tried to be," he says, "Yoko was too much. 'Get the fuck off the stage,' people started to scream." Some people booed. The Star called it "excruciating... a finger nail scratching over a blackboard."

But Lennon claimed he didn't hear any of that. And Ono won some rave reviews. The Montreal Gazette called her performance "extraordinary... full of real emotion... the stunning effect of Yoko's soaring cries [were] like worlds colliding or the universe blowing apart..." The entire set was recorded and released as an album called Live Peace In Toronto 1969. It broke the Top 10 on the Billboard chart and went gold. In Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus called it, "more fun than anything [Lennon]'s done in a long while, with a great deal more vitality than Abbey Road, in fact."

The set ended with the haunting shrieks of Ono's "John, John, Let's Hope For Peace." As the song came to a close, Lennon leaned his guitar up against an amp, screaming feedback while Clapton coaxed strange noises from his own instrument. They left Yoko on stage, squawking like a bird into the Bloor Street night.

Lennon was thrilled with the way things had gone. "I can't remember when I had such a good time," he said later. "It gave me a great feeling, a feeling I haven't had for a long time." He'd been nervous and uncertain about the next stage in his life. But the show in Toronto had given him confidence. Now, he knew for sure he wanted to return to the stage. And it wouldn't be with the band he'd been part of since he was 15 years old. No less of an authority than Ringo Starr cites the Toronto Peace Festival as the turning point: John Lennon was going to leave The Beatles.

Fans at the Toronto Peace Festival
So the final seeds had already been sown by the time the last act of the Rock 'N' Roll Revival Show finally took the stage. The Doors were past their peak, too. Jim Morrison had less than two years left to live. He was already awaiting trial for indecent exposure charges; in a few weeks, he'd be arrested again for being a drunken mess on an airplane. He was run down, ravaged by alcoholism. He'd grown a beard, gained weight; one fan remembers the sound of his knees cracking as he moved around the stage that night.

But the band played a mesmerizing set. "When The Music's Over." "Break On Through." "Light My Fire." In the Toronto Daily Star, Jack Batten gushed, "Jim Morrison has so much presence, so much electricity, that he makes his rock contemporaries resemble a collection of wax dummies..." Peter Goddard agreed in the Toronto Telegram: "With [Morrison] there was a sense of melodramatic theatrics, of sensuality and poetry, of sheer power belching electronically... With an icily sleepy stare and a slow amble, he was a force to be reckoned with..."

Before long, there was only one song left to go. As Ray Manzarek's keyboards hummed darkly, the tambourine shook and the bass plucked away. Morrison leaned into the microphone, remembering how his own life had been changed by rock & roll. He shared his memories with the audience between languid, drugged-out pauses. "You know, I can remember when I was... in about the seventh or eighth grade... I can remember when rock & roll first came on the scene... it burst open whole new strange catacombs of wisdom... And that's why for me this evening it's been... really a great honour... to perform on the same stage... with so many illustrious musical geniuses."

And then, Jim Morrison began to sing. It was the only song you could imagine ending the festival with. The only song you could imagine ending the decade with, really:

"This is the end, beautiful friend. This is the end, my only friend, the end. Of our elaborate plans, the end. Of everything that stands, the end..."

It was nearly two in the morning by the time the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival Show finally came to an end. In the thirteen hours since the first act took the stage at Varsity Stadium, a lot of things had changed. The '50s had been revived. The biggest band of the '60s had entered their final days. Shock rock had been born. And so, too, maybe, had the tradition of an audience lifting their matches and lighters — and someday their smartphones — into the air. It's no wonder Rolling Stone once called the Toronto Peace Festival the second most important event in the history of rock & roll. 

A week later, John Lennon told The Beatles he was done. The greatest band of all-time was breaking up. The 1960s were over. The 1970s were ready to begin.
 
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More of The Plastic Ono Band at the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival Show: the entire set.




More Little Richard at the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival Show: "Lucille", "Tutti Frutti", "Rip It Up", "Keep A-Knockin'", "Hound Dog", "Jenny Jenny", "Long Tall Sally".




More Jerry Lee Lewis at the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival Show: "Hound Dog", "Mean Woman Blues", "Don't Be Cruel", "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On", "Mystery Train", "Jailhouse Rock".




More Chuck Berry at the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival Show: the entire set.

 You can listen to the bootleg recording of the full Doors set on YouTube here. You can watch Alice Cooper's interview about the chicken incident here. And some poor-quality footage of the set here.

You can buy the Sweet Toronto film here. A couple of other documentaries were made from Pennebaker's footage, too. You can buy Little Richard: Live At The Toronto Peace Festival 1969 here, and Chuck Berry: Live At The Toronto Peace Festival 1969 here (or borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here). You can also buy The Plastic Ono Band's 1969 Live Peace In Toronto album here.

You can read the full review of the show from Robert Christgau here. And Greil Marcus' Rolling Stone review of The Plastic Ono Band's live album from 1970 here. You can also read the full reviews from the Star, Telegram and Gazette thanks to Flickr user TheWizardofAz.

Over at blogTO, Chris Bateman has a post about the festival called "That Time Toronto Saved Rock & Roll".

I got some of the info about the cocaine, Yoko Ono, and Little Richard from the You And What Army blog here. The bit about Rolling Stone calling it the second most important event in rock & roll history came from the Globe and Mail here. Some of the quotes about The Plastic Ono Band set were found thanks to the research by John Whelan for the Ottawa Beatles Site here. You can read more about Little Richard's set on JamBands.com here. Writer Reid Dickie shared his memories of the show on his own site here. The screencap the chicken incident came from here. The screencap of Chuck Berry from here. And of John Lennon from here. The photo of the crowd was found thanks to a post by thecharioteer on UrbanToronto here.

Watching Pennebaker's footage, you can see the Royal Conservatory of Music in the distance. It's right next door to Varsity Stadium and, of course, plays it's own important role in the history of Canadian music. According to Wikipedia, former students include Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson, Gordon Lightfoot, Bruce Cockburn, Randy Bachman (The Guess Who), Emily Haines (Metric), Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy), Richard Reed Perry (Arcade Fire, Belle Orchestre), Tegan and Sara, Sara Slean, Rob Baker (Tragically Hip), Diana Krall, Sarah McLachlan, Shania Twain, Loreena McKennitt, Paul Schaffer, R. Murray Schafer, producer David Foster, Robert Goulet, Jeff Healey, Amanda Marshall and Chantal Kreviazuk. Feist is an Honourary Fellow.